Tahini Date Shortbread
They say “everything is better with Coke.” For me, everything is better with chocolate. And dates. That’s how I ended up baking not just tahini shortbread, but tahini chocolate shortbread… and tahini date shortbread. Both irresistible, especially the latter.
It turns out, dates and tahini are a classic combination. But first, let’s go back to the beginning…
I grew up eating halvah, the sesame based confection, usually bought as slices from large slabs sold in shops on New York City’s Lower East Side. In its simplest form, it is a paste made from ground sesame seeds and sugar, with extra ingredients depending on who is making it and where (glucose, soapwort root, vanilla, pistachios, etc.). The sesame seeds alone, once they are roasted, soaked, hulled and pressed, become tahini, an ingredient perhaps most well-known in hummus or baba ghannouj. It is often compared to peanut butter too, spread on bread. But I only knew it in the context of halvah and hummus until recently.
Anissa Helou, a friend and expert on the cuisines of the Mediterranean and Middle East, knowing my love for dates, told me to try them stuffed with tahini. (She shares how tahini is made on her blog, fascinating to see.) And Johanna, the Passionate Cook had commented on my Ode to Dates with: “In war-ridden Iraq this was the only available dessert or sweet thing ? a spoonful of tahini with date molasses? very addictive.” Mayssam Samaha, of Will Travel For Food, assured me this was a very common sweet treat in Lebanon, where she grew up. Clearly I needed to get some tahini, and try this all out.
Tahini had been on my mind to bake with for a while. There were Meeta Khurana Wolff’s raspberry tea macarons with tahini dark chocolate cream. Then there were Dan Lepard’s halva flapjacks with the addition of dates or figs, and yet another recipe that caught my eye online for tahini shortbread. Yet more inspiration came from another Lebanese friend in Brighton. After a delicious feast by Bethany Kehdy of Dirty Kitchen Secrets, I was let loose in her kitchen for dessert. And what did I find… a jar of halawa. Is that halvah, I asked? Indeed it is, known as halawa in the Levant. At which point, seeing my eyes light up, and being shocked that I thought of it as dessert, she asked if she could make me a snack. Advice: if you ever find yourself in this scenario, just say yes.
Round flatbread was quickly topped with (a lot of) crumbled halawa and pomegranate molasses drizzled on top. Into the oven it went for 5 minutes, until the halvah was warm and slightly melted, and the pita crisp. It was sublime, for its mix of flavors (sweet and sour) and textures, and combining both the familiar and totally exotic. Apparently Arabic flatbread spread with halawa and rolled up is a common treat for kids on their way to school in Lebanon. This took that up a notch in sophistication for sure.
There are a few sesame based desserts I’ll always remember in New York City too. One year, I requested Taboon as my birthday restaurant for its silan sundae: vanilla ice cream and date honey sprinkled with caramelized pistachios and shredded halvah. (They also currently have the “Perfect Halva: frozen halva custard and dolce de leche, milk chocolate cornflake crunch and halvah sauce, served in a chocolate hemisphere.”) And there was Bill Yosses’ outstanding sesame sundae at Bôi: sesame gelato (from Il Laboratorio del Gelato), tahini loosened with cream, ribbons of caramel, toasted sesame seeds and chunks of halvah.
With tahini on the brain, and a pairing with dates inevitable, my shortbread quickly came to be. It was perfect with an espresso (for my husband), a cup of tea, or ice cream (for me). I’m seeing a lot more baking with tahini in my near future, especially in cookies (have I ever mentioned that I love cookies ?!), or ice cream creations. Dipping flatbread into tahini drizzled with date molasses is a current favorite snack as well. But as Anissa also mentioned, she even prefers tahini with grape (or carob) molasses, which is a bit thicker. Sounds like a Middle Eastern spin on a peanut and butter jelly sandwich to me…!
Tahini Date Shortbread
makes 16 triangles
3/4 cup (170 grams) butter, softened
1/2 cup tahini
1 1/4 cup packed dark brown sugar
1/4 tsp salt
2 cups flour + extra for dates
8 Medjool dates, chopped into small pieces (you can replace dates with other ingredients like chocolate or nuts)
Handful of sesame seeds
Place dates in freezer so they will be easier to chop. (Otherwise, they’ll just stick to each other and to the knife.) Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit (190 degrees Celsius). Butter two 7 or 8 inch round pans.
Blend butter and tahini with an electric mixer or in a food processor. Add sugar and salt and blend until smooth. Add flour and blend again. Take the dates out of the freezer, remove pits and roughly chop. Toss with flour so they do not stick to each other and will be distributed evenly in batter. Mix into batter. Divide evenly among the two pans. Press with hands until flat and smooth. Sprinkle sesame seeds on top. Score with a knife, making 4 cuts to finish with 8 triangles.
Bake for 15-20 minutes until slightly dark around the edges and dry in the center. Let cool for 5-10 minutes, then using a knife, carefully separate the triangles while still in the pan. Let cool completely before removing.